Satire leaves laughs on the shelf

Can a deadpan satire of working-class work life make it in a summer cinema of foul-mouthed Seth Rogen, an Indian-accented Mike Myers or Israeli-accented Adam Sandler, with Steve Carell as Maxwell Smart?

I don't think so, either.

But “The Promotion” has more work-life truth in it than a month of “The Office” or “Dilbert.” The modern job site captured here is a slave galley set on a sea of uncertainty, where you struggle to keep your sea legs as you “manage” lazy and incompetent bosses, dodge harassment claims and try to make plans for “the future” in an economy where you can't plan anything.

“The Promotion” centers around assistant grocery store manager Richard (John C. Reilly), transferred from Canada, and Doug (Seann William Scott), the “shoo-in” whose chances of moving from assistant manager (“a short sleever”) to store manager are threatened the minute Richard waltzes into his Chicagoland Donaldson's Supermarket. They both want the job of running the new Donaldson's that will open across town. How far will they go to get it?

Not that far, by the standards of American film comedy in this Age of Apatow. Writer-director Steve Conrad is going for something much subtler, more real. He toys with our allegiance, showing how Doug only wants to escape a lousy apartment, and how Richard is older in an economy that really only allows one last form of discrimination – age.

The guys go at it, showing each other up, kissing up, hustling, working the angles. First one candidate has the edge, then the other.

Conrad doesn't drop this into broad farce. His Doug is struggling with disappointment, tests of his character, feelings of inferiority, the works. It's Scott's most interesting (if not his funniest) performance. Reilly? He can play Richard's matching insecurities in his sleep and make them endearing.

But for a comedy, “The Promotion” doesn't serve up as many envelope-pushing laughs as we've come to demand. The narrow focus, sketching in this slovenly employee or that unpleasant customer or corporate “coach” (Jason Bateman, enough said), limits where our laughs come from.

Maybe audiences won't flock to this; that word “satire” is moviegoer kryptonite. But if only the nation's political candidates show up for “The Promotion,” that might be enough. Court your “soccer moms” and “NASCAR dads” all you want. American angst, 2008? You can learn all you need to know about that in the supermarket.